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The nature of existence; and more precisely, the nature of humans and animals is one of selfish survival. In literature, we see this idea through novels such as Heart of Darkness that takes a historical, realistic approach to the concept, and also The Road which takes this idea to an extreme, set in a post-apocalyptic world. The Metamorphosis poses a question of the nature of existence in terms of a person’s value to society. Franz Kafka places his protagonist, Gregor, in a bizarre situation in order to answer this question of the nature of existence through the novel.
The Metamorphosis conveys a message and a judgement on society through the story of a family that violates the archetypal family order where the father is the head of the household; in this family, the father figure is Gregor, the son, who is the only source of support and income. Gregor’s peculiar transformation into a bug creates a father and son conflict about the restoration of the symbolic order of the family; the law of the father, and conveys the central theme of the novel: A person’s value in society is equal to how much other people value them.
The source of the conflict between Gregor and his father is the role reversal of the two characters’ archetypes. Gregor is the sole working member of the family, which is a sharp contrast to the symbolic order where the father is the main supporter of the family. Gregor’s first thoughts as he wakes up as a bug were about his job: “What is strenuous career it is that I’ve chosen.” Gregor, subconsciously, values and prioritizes his career over his state of being because he needs to “pay off [his] parents debt” and to support his family. This characteristic of Gregor is the foundation of his father’s resentment and the only value that Gregor has to the family; setting up how he reacts to Gregor’s transformation.
Gregor’s father is initially developed as weak and unfulfilling of the father role: “his father was knocking on one side door, weakly but with his fist”. This introduction to Gregor’s father gives the readers a glimpse of the father’s character before Gregor’s transformation. His weak knocking build that resigned and senile image of the father. A notable choice of words in the sentence is that the father was knocking “with his fist”. Fists are associated with anger and violence; emotions that the father has towards Gregor throughout the novel. The father’s introduction in the novel subtly develops his quiet resentment towards Gregor, which he does not act upon until Gregor’s transformation; a catalyst for change.
The failure of Gregor’s father to fulfill his archetype is further developed in the rising action of the novel. “The same tired man as used to be laying there in June in his bed when Gregor came back from his business trips”. This disturbance of the archetypal family order fosters the father’s inadequacy and resentment towards Gregor, who has taken over the father figure role. Gregor’s transformation is an opportunity for the father to restore the symbolic order.
Gregory’s transformation changes the mechanical, dull nature of his family’s life because Gregory becomes unable to work; Gregory’s father acts on this opportunity and is described as a man who “was standing up straight now; dressed up in a smart blue uniform… worn by the employees at the banking institute”. In some aspects, Gregor’s father’s transformation is more drastic than Gregor’s own transformation because this description seems to be of a completely different man than the one of the “tired man” of the past. “Standing straight” emphasizes his confidence and power as he looms over the bug form of Gregor. And the “blue uniform” is a sharp contrast to his home clothes during his unemployment.
Gregor’s father’s new ego is further developed in the following pages of the novel, leading up to a climax. “He regularly fell asleep and then could only be prevailed upon with the greatest difficulty to trade his chair for the bed”. This stubborn reluctance to return to his bed is a reflection of Gregor’s father’s newfound confidence as a result of being employed and making progress towards the restoration of the family order. The chair is a symbol of being the father figure and sitting with power as opposed to the bed, which is a symbol of his unemployement and unhealthy retirement to the bed; a weakness in laying down. By finding a job as a response to Gregor’s transformation, Gregor’s father is restoring the symbolic order of the family. However, the order cannot be fully restored as long as Gregor, the former father figure, is still alive and technically employed.
To remove Gregor from the family order, Gregor’s father “filled his pockets with [apples]… [and] threw one apple after another.” In throwing the apples, Gregor’s father is giving Gregor the symbolic knowledge (from the biblical Tree of Knowledge) of his resentment and feelings towards Gregor. The climatic struggle between Gregor and his father is a revelation of Gregor’s role and value in the family post-transformation. Ironically, Gregor’s love creates ignorance because he is never aware of his family’s true feelings towards him. In his last moments, he “thought back to his family with emotion and love”. Therefore, the conflict also serves to convey a strong message that familial love transcends conflict and death; in Gregor’s case, his father’s betrayal and hostility.
In the conclusion of the novel, the family reflects on Gregor’s death without remorse for killing him. Gregor’s father, with success in restoring the symbolic order, remarks “if only he understood us”. In saying this, Gregor’s father, and Kafka, have two meanings. Gregor’s father needed Gregor to understand the symbolic order; the reason for his death. And also, that Gregor’s transformation made him a burden, and valueless to the family because of his inability to work. Kafka conveys his message on a person’s value in society through Gregor’s bizarre situation, and in writing Gregor’s father’s words, he is hoping the audience understands his message.
The father vs. son conflict of The Metamorphosis came from a disturbance of the symbolic order where the father provides for the family and serves as a revelation of the truth about society and the value of a person, and also the extent of familial love. Once the order, the employment of Gregor’s father, was restored, the family did not value Gregor anymore and considered him a burden before murdering him. Gregor’s bizarre situation conveys the idea that a person’s value in society is equal to how much other people value them; a critical message that resonates with the readers as they reflect on their value to their own family and society.
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